The Movies That Matter The Most To Me

“What’s your favorite movie?”

It’s a fairly common question, especially between people just meeting or getting to know each other – and for good reason.  Your answer can tell a lot about you – your worldview, your sense of humor, your sense of style, even your politics.  As far as icebreakers go, it’s pretty versatile.

It’s also a question that I just hate being asked.

Part of the reason is that I almost certainly take movies a little too seriously.  If I don’t watch myself, I can quickly overreact to someone either disliking a film I adore or finding value in one that I have written off.  I know that this is not healthy behavior.  The value found in art and entertainment is highly subjective and everyone absolutely has the inalienable right to like or dislike any or all of it.  So when someone casually dismisses a film that happened to make a profound impact on my own life, I try to remind myself to take a step back, breathe deeply, and let it go.

However, the larger part of the reason I don’t like being asked to choose my favorite movie is that I have an extremely hard time determining the criteria by which said movie should be judged.  My first response is almost always a copout: some variation of  the statement, “Oh, I couldn’t choose just one.”  Unfortunately, the response that invariably follows – “OK, give me your top three/five/ten/whatever,” – actually makes the question harder for me, because at that point I stop looking at the artistic merits of single films and start trying to discern broader themes, patterns, and evolutions in all the films I’ve seen in my life thus far.  Should I break my lifetime into chunks of time and pick a film to represent each one?  Should I choose the films that have impacted me the most – and, if so, should the impact be emotional, professional, intellectual, or some combination thereof?  Should it be the collection of movies I’d want with me on a deserted island?  Should it be the films that I feel have the highest artistic value?  Or should I choose my favorite directors and pick a representative film for each one?  Each qualifier would produce a dramatically different set of films – and that’s barely scratching the surface.  Maybe it should be the films I watch the most often; or recommend the most frequently; or the ones that I wish that, somehow, I could have made myself.

Like I said, I probably take this a little too seriously.

It should be noted that the fact that I have a hard time answering this question does not mean that I have not given it a great deal of thought, because I have.  And in the interest of self-improvement – and having a quicker answer on hand – I have decided to attempt a kind of answer.  In the following list, I won’t necessarily be sticking to any one matrix – instead, I will try to choose a collection of films that (hopefully) gets back to the original purpose of the question: giving the person asking the question some idea of the person giving the answer.  These are the films I am choosing to represent myself; the movies that should tell you something about me.  What that happens to be is entirely up to you.

The following ten films are not in any particular order, because that would complicate things even further.

1. Porco Rosso (1992) – dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Animation is important to me and, to put it simply, Hayao Miyazaki is the master of animation.  His body of work and his dedication to his craft are simply second to none.  I wrote my thesis on Miyazaki and have probably spent more time in the worlds of his films than any other director’s.

Porco Rosso is not Miyazaki’s most well-known film – that would probably be the utterly delightful My Neighbor Totoro.  Nor is it his most technically proficient – that would probably be Spirited Away, for which he won an Academy Award.  Porco Rosso is the film that resonates with me the most, though.  The film possesses an exuberant spirit of adventure, a charming setting, and lovably flawed characters.  Porco Rosso has been called Miyazaki’s “most personal” film, because it reflects the director’s desires and aspirations the most directly.  Porco Rosso is brimming with romance, wistfulness, and fun – it’s one of my absolute favorite films to just lose myself in.

2. In the Mood for Love (2000) – dir. Wong Kar Wai

There are several reasons that In the Mood for Love gets a spot on this list.  First of all, it is arguably Wong Kar Wai’s best film to date and Wong Kar Wai is one of the finest directors working today.  However, the film also has a very personal connection for me – I have vivid memories of seeing it for the first time at the wonderful Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.  It was my introduction not just to Wong Kar Wai’s body of work, but also to the splendid actors Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.  Watching the film, I felt that my understanding and appreciation of the medium in general was being broadened.  In the Mood for Love was a “gateway” film for me – a movie that inspired me to think about cinema in new ways and seek out artists that I was previously unfamiliar with.

Also, the film itself is just unbelievably sexy.  The cinematography, the narrative, the music, and the performances are all unique and intoxicating – and they come together to form something greater than the sum of their parts.

3. Seven Samurai (1954) – dir. Akira Kurosawa

This list is clearly skewing towards Asian cinema so far and that’s no accident – I’ve always been drawn to the films of Asia – and Japan in particular.  Of course, it’s impossible to have any meaningful discussion of Japanese cinema without talking about Akira Kurosawa.  Kurosawa was a brilliant director who approached the medium with the practiced touch of an absolute master.  He is largely responsible for bringing Japanese films – perhaps even foreign-language films in general – to the attention of Western audiences and his contribution to the art of filmmaking simply cannot be overstated.

Seven Samurai is a bit of a “safe” choice, as it’s one of Kurosawa’s best-known and most highly regarded works – and I have to confess that part of me wants to go with a less obvious choice, like Red Beard, or Ikiru, or even Yojimbo.  Seven Samurai really does capture the best of Kurosawa, though: his collaboration with actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura; elegant, understated cinematography and editing; and a narrative style that manages to infuse moments of humor into a very sober story.  Kurosawa balances a diverse group of characters, themes, subplots, and motivations in a way that looks effortless.  Seven Samurai is somehow both profound and approachable – a period action epic that subtly explores issues of class, violence, and honor.  It’s an absolute masterpiece.

4. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) dir. Stanley Kubrick

Of all the films in Stanley Kubrick’s incredible body of work, I probably find myself coming back to Dr. Strangelove the most often.  It’s smart and funny and dark in a way that very movies manage to pull off.  Peter Sellers somehow shines in three different roles without distracting from the broader absurdity at play.  Dr. Strangelove is  a raucous comedy about nuclear escalation and the end of the world – an utterly captivating and terrifying combination that no one except Kubrick could have possibly made work.

If there is one thing that Kubrick proved in his collective work, it’s that he could master any genre or subject matter – from heady, hard sci-fi (2001: A Space Odyssey) to period drama (Barry Lyndon) to horror (The Shining) to war (Full Metal Jacket).  Dr. Strangelove is the closest the director comes to making a flat-out comedy, but – like so many of his films – Dr. Strangelove ultimately transcends genre classification and becomes something greater.

5. Rushmore (1998) – dir. Wes Anderson

A lot of people are dismissive of Wes Anderson, saying that his films are too twee, or too nostalgic, or too precious.  They are all of those things, but that doesn’t stop them from being touching, funny, and immensely enjoyable.  Anderson’s films have made a tremendous impact on the landscape of modern cinema – not so much in terms of their unique aesthetic (although that has been both parodied and borrowed), but because of their humor, tone, and characterization.  When you watch a Wes Anderson film, it’s clear that the director loves cinema and derives great joy from playing with it.  Anderson’s films are clever dioramas, meticulously placed images and sounds that come together to create funny, surreal, melancholy worlds unto themselves.

I don’t think that Rushmore is Anderson’s best film, per se – my vote for that title would probably go to its followup, The Royal Tenenbaums, which exemplifies the ensemble performances and tangled subplots that would become a hallmark of Anderson’s style.  There’s a spectacular freshness to Rushmore, though – as Anderson’s second feature (following the delightfully oddball Bottle Rocket), it reveals a director who is just starting to find confidence in his individual voice.  The friendship/rivalry between Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer and Bill Murray’s Herman Blume is one cinema’s most entertaining relationships – Max’s foibles and eccentricities in particular make him one of the most engaging characters Anderson has created.

6. Rear Window (1954) – dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Like Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock stands as one of the titans of the history of cinema.  Few artists have contributed as much to their medium as Hitchcock did – looking through his body of work, it is impossible not to be struck by the fact that there is just so much that is so good.  He was known as “the master of suspense,” but that title almost belittles the breadth of his talent.  Hitchcock simply understood how to make movies on a level that very few auteurs ever reach.

Choosing a favorite Hitchcock film is almost as difficult as choosing a favorite film-in-general.  There are extraordinarily fun action-romps like North by Northwest; brilliant mysteries like Vertigo; and disturbing explorations of humanity’s dark side, like Psycho.  Rear Window has always held a special place for me, though – it’s such a clever, well-executed concept and the casting of Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly is hard to beat.  Like all of Hitchcock’s best, it’s scary, funny, and full of suspense – but, most of all, it was clearly constructed by a master of the medium.

7. Miller’s Crossing (1990) – dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

Of all the films on this list, I probably went back and forth the most over which of Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies to include.  Barton Fink is bizarre, profound, and layered; Fargo is probably the most perfect dark tragi-comedy ever made; O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an inspired and deeply enjoyable reinterpretation of Greek mytholody; The Big Lebowski is hilarious, smart, and absurd.  For me personally, watching a rented VHS of the tragically under-seen The Hudsucker Proxy as a teenager was an incredibly significant moment in my appreciation of film.

All things considered, though, the Coens’ homage to gangster films just does so many things right while remaining so much fun to watch: the casting is spot-on, the script is smart and snappy, and the cinematography is gorgeous.  The finished film feels like a sort of blend of all the Coens’ favorite mobster  tropes, filtered through their own unique lens.  Gabriel Byrne’s performance manages to deftly blend humanity and depravity, while Albert Finney shooting his way out of a burning house while “Danny Boy” plays is simply one of the greatest movie scenes ever.  While it isn’t one of the Coen brothers’ most frequently referenced films, Miller’s Crossing is full of memorable, violent, remarkable moments and it certainly deserves attention.

8. The 400 Blows (1959) – dir. François Truffaut

The 400 Blows is the film that launched the directing career of François Truffaut, the acting career of Jean-Pierre Léaud, and the French New Wave movement.  It’s the first film in the ambitious Antoine Doinel series, which featured Léaud in the same role in four features and a short film – released over a twenty year period.  Beyond its place in cinematic history, though, The 400 Blows is an incredibly personal, relatable, moving film about the joys and sorrows of growing up.  There are very few films that capture the heartache, happiness, weirdness, and mischief that are a part of that process as well as The 400 Blows does.

The 400 Blows is an intensely autobiographical film and it shows; it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic for Antoine, even as Truffaut explores his faults onscreen.  It’s also an absolutely remarkable feature debut – The 400 Blows feels revolutionary and fresh, but it is also supremely confident filmmaking.  Before moving into directing, Truffaut spent several years writing film criticism for the hugely influential publication “Les Cahiers du Cinema,” under the tutelage of the legendary critic André Bazin.  The 400 Blows is as good an argument as any that the worlds of film analysis and film production are complementary and that mastery of the medium requires a deep understanding of both disciplines.

9. Volver (2006) – dir. Pedro Almodovar

Probably Spain’s most celebrated contemporary filmmaker, Pedro Almodovar makes movies about women, family, and death – but mostly women.  Volver explores those themes through a delightfully pulpy story featuring some of Almodovar’s favorite actresses – Blanca Portillo, Lola Dueñas, and, of course, Penelope Cruz.  Even by Almodovar’s standards, Volver is a remarkably female-centric film – male characters only make fleeting appearances  and only in minor roles.  Instead, Volver centers on three generations of women in a family that has been marked by one unusual tragedy after another.

The plot of Volver could have been borrowed from the soapiest of daytime TV, featuring murder, arson, incest, illness, mistaken identity, and a benevolent “ghost.”  Part of the charm of the film is watching its female protagonists react to these increasingly absurd situations with good-humored pragmatism.  At one point, one of the film’s few male characters asks Cruz’s character, Raimunda, how she is holding up.  “I’m completely hysterical,” she replies immediately, barely batting an eye.  The sisters, daughters, and mothers that Almodovar conjures up in Volver are anything but hysterical: they are smart, funny, occasionally disturbing, and incredibly entertaining – like the film itself.

10. The Thin Red Line (1998) – dir. Terrence Malick

When is a war movie not a war movie?  Probably when it’s directed by Terrence Malick.  The second world war is certainly an ever-present backdrop in The Thin Red Line, but the film doesn’t really feel like any other war movie ever made.  Malick’s films tend to be meditative and multi-faceted and The Thin Red Line is no exception; it moves constantly from character to character, forward and backward in time, never letting its focus settle in one place for very long.  The result is more of a composite image than a single, unified narrative.  Light streams through the canopy of a dense forest; children splash in ocean waves; soldiers march, fight, and die in eerily beautiful fields and jungles.  The Thin Red Line is a collection of images and moments that remain with you long after the film has finished.

Even as I wrote this list, I could see its myriad flaws:  No silent film?  No documentaries?  Only one animation?  Nothing by Paul Thomas Anderson or Ingmar Bergman or David Lynch?  At the end of the day, though, I just need to let it be what it is: an imperfect answer to an impossible question.  I reserve the right to change it at will or disregard it entirely.

I’d love to hear what your favorite films are, so feel free to post a comment below.  Part of the fun of questions like this – and, really, they are fun – is that you will almost never get the same answer twice.  The medium of film is so vast, yet so personal, and it affects us all differently.  There are no wrong answers.

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